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The following is for informational purposes only



Theft is the illegal taking of someone’s property or money with the intention to keep it and never return it. Depending on the purpose and the gravity of the crime, theft is broken down into 3 broad categories:

  • Petty theft – less than $500 or $1,000, depending on the state law
  • Grand theft – properties over $500 or $1,000 (in some jurisdictions, it’s called “larceny”)
  • Federal grand theft - when individuals steal over $500 from the federal government

Grand theft often interconnects with other crimes such as robbery, white-collar crimes,or embezzlement, with Grand Theft Auto being a distinct offense that involves stealing a car.


Different Types of Theft

Different Types of Theft

The term “theft” is associated with a wide range of offenses against property or cash that is permanently removed without the owner’s freely given consent, including the following:

  • Larceny – theft of personal property
  • Robbery - theft carried out by using force or fear
  • Burglary - illegally entering a building to commit a crime while inside it
  • Embezzlement - misappropriating assets for theft (conversion)
  • Criminal conversion – exerting unauthorized use or control over another person’s property
  • Looting - stealing during an emergency, such as flood, earthquake, fire, riot, or other manmade or natural disaster
  • Shoplifting - knowingly taking items displayed for sale from a store and leaving without paying
  • Fraud - intentional use of false or misleading information to deprive another person of money, property or legal rights

Theft Penalties and Property Value Thresholds

Theft Penalties and Property Value Thresholds

Judging by the value of the stolen property, theft can be either a misdemeanor, when minor charges are brought, or a felony, for major, more severe crimes. For misdemeanors, punishments include relatively short jail times that most of the times last less than six months and cannot exceed one year, while felonies imply at least 1 year of jail time in a state prison, along hefty fines and having to pay the victim a restitution. Anything above the “petty theft” value limits is charged as a Grand Theft and the penalties will depend on:

  • The type of property stolen;
  • The circumstances of the theft;
  • Concurrent charges;
  • The thief’s past criminal history.

Another factor is the state legislation, for instance Arizona has the division between misdemeanor and felony at $1000, while Virginia applies a threshold of $200.


Felony Theft Sentencing

Felony Theft Sentencing

Regardless of the stolen value, if someone steals a certain type of property such as fire weapon or car, it’s automatically considered a felony. The same rule applies for special items and categories for which some states have adopted separate laws. For instance:

  • In Kentucky, stealing anhydrous ammonia widely used in the manufacturing of methamphetamines (meth) is deemed a felony;
  • In New York, you risk being charged with a felony for stealing secret scientific materials, public records, debit or credit cards;
  • In Washington, stealing a search-and-rescue dog on duty qualifies as a felony.

How a theft is carried outplays a major part in theft sentencing, for example if the thief uses violence – ripping a purse from a woman’s hand. States like Alaska and Missouri explicitly state that “physically taking property from a person” is a felony.


"Three Strikes" State Laws

Three Strikes State Laws

Even in cases of minor theft, recidivists or repeat offender could be subjected to harsher penalties in some states that have adopted “3 Strikes, You’re Out” laws. For instance in Pennsylvania, you can get a life sentence without parole if you’re charged with “3 strikes,” and burglary is among them. In California, if the first two felonies are "violent," and the third one is any type of felony, even a non-violent petty theft, a felony conviction is in order.

The “Three Strikes, You're Out” laws are extensively debated over their constitutionality and effectiveness. They aim to jail for life “habitual offenders.” In general, any “career criminal” who has been convicted of “three strikes” (three felonies) receives very long prison sentences.For example, in California, one thief was found guilty of stealing $150 worth of video tapes from a mall. Since the perpetrator was a repeat offender, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the theft of the video tapes alone.

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